This reading group guide for Spoken from the Heart includes an introduction and discussion questions. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
From the flat, dusty streets of Midland, Texas, in the heart of the boom-and-bust American oil patch, to the gleaming columns and glistening marble hallways of the White House, Laura Welch Bush traveled a rare path. But many readers will find much to share in her particular story—from private family grief and a tragic twist of fate to waiting years for love and her struggle for much-wanted children. Use our reader’s guide to help re-examine Laura Bush’s private years and her life in the public eye.
THE FORMATIVE YEARS IN MIDLAND, TEXAS YEARS
- Laura Bush’s Spoken from the Heart begins with a story of loss: the death of her premature, newborn baby brother when Laura was just two-and-a-half years old. The theme of loss is woven throughout the book, the loss of two other baby siblings; the loss of her friend, Mike Douglas, in the car crash; the loss of her father to dementia; even the loss of privacy and anonymity first when she marries into the Bush family and then when her husband enters politics. How do you think these losses shaped her life and shaped her outlook? Did they make her more resilient or more guarded? Did reading about this legacy of loss change your own impressions and opinions of her?
- West Texas and Laura Bush’s Texas roots are a major component of her story. On page 20, she writes, “There was an underlying sense of hardship, a sense that the land could quickly turn unforgiving.” And on p. 121, “People in West Texas believe that they think differently, and to a large degree they do….Those who live there are direct and blunt to the point of hurt sometimes. There is not time for artifice; it looks and sounds ridiculous amid the barren landscape.” How did the land of West Texas shape Laura and the Welch family? Did you come away from the book thinking that people from that part of the United States are indeed different? What were the most noticeable differences or characteristics for you?
- Laura Bush was also deeply shaped by being an only child. On page 6, she says, “I remember as a small girl looking up at the darkening night sky, waiting for the stars to pop out one by one. I would watch for that first star, for its faint glow, because then I could make my wish. And my wish on a star any time that I wished on a star was that I would have brothers and sisters.” Do you think her response might have been different if her parents hadn’t wanted other babies so much? Do you think that there is an inherent loneliness born out of being an only child or did Laura’s circumstances make her feel it more acutely? What was your response to her mother’s decision to send young Laura on “solo picnics”?
- One aspect of Laura Bush’s West Texas life that comes through strongly in the book is the code of silence. Her family and others did not talk about veterans’ World War II experiences; her mother and father did not speak of the lost babies; and no one spoke of the horrible car crash the day after she turned 17. Her mother didn’t want to speak about her father’s drinking. Do you think this silence is unique to the culture of the area or to the era of the 1940s, 50s, and early 60s? What is your reaction to this code of silence, compared to our own time, when tell-alls and personal confessions are far more the norm and the rule?
- Laura Bush recounts in devastating detail the car accident that claimed the life of her high school friend. What were your own emotions reading her story of that night and the days that followed? Do you think it would have helped if she had gone to the funeral? What would you now say to someone in that position as a result of what Laura has described and discussed? Should her family and friends have talked about the crash and its aftermath? How do you imagine the silence about the accident shaped her? Do you think she has forgiven herself?
FINDING HER WAY AS AN ADULT
- Laura Bush entered college less than a year after John F. Kennedy was assassinated and graduated a few weeks after the deaths of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Women’s liberation was also on the cultural agenda. How is her own life during that period reflective or not reflective of the 1960s in the United States? How did that turbulent period affect her decisions, choices, and beliefs?
- From the time that she was a little girl, friendship was deeply important to Laura Bush. Yet she also made some very different choices from many of her friends: she did not marry early; she chose a traditional job, but wanted to work in more challenging environments; and she was restless, moving from town to town. What was your response to that era of her life? What do you think she was looking for? Why do you think the 20s can be such a restless period in a person’s, particularly a woman’s, life?
- When Laura Bush tells the story of her first, semi-blind date with George Bush, she ends by saying that perhaps if they had met at some other point, things would not have worked out, but on that night, “it was the right timing for both of us.” What, to you, was the most surprising part of their courtship and decision to marry? Do you think it is possible to meet someone and just know that he or she is right for you? What aspects of their lives do you think were the most important anchors for their marriage?
- Laura Bush begins her marriage with a political campaign. What do you think are the pros and cons of marrying into a political family? What do you imagine were the biggest difficulties for her coming from a small, private family and joining a large, sprawling, high-profile political family? What were your reactions to how she negotiated her new role?
- When George and Laura Bush got married, she returned to live in Midland, Texas—and stayed far out of the Washington political spotlight for most of George HW Bush’s presidency. How do you think those years of living as adults in their childhood hometown shaped both of the Bushes?
- Laura and George Bush struggled to have children, eventually filing for adoption and trying fertility treatments. She notes, “The English language lacks the words to mourn an absence….for someone who was never there at all, we are wordless to capture that particular emptiness.” How hard is it still to talk about infertility? Are we as a culture sensitive enough to couples who are struggling to have a child? What part of Laura Bush’s story of her efforts to have children resonated most with you?
- Much of Midland, Texas’s social culture revolved around drinking. Why do you think so much heavy drinking was acceptable for so many decades? Was there anything about Midland that made it a drinking town, or was it not that different from other parts of the United States in those years? What did you think of the fact that both Laura and her mother married men who drank almost every day? How would you compare the ways in which each woman handled the situation?
- Laura Bush and her mother-in-law, Barbara Bush, are both strong women, but in very different ways. What aspects of their relationship surprised you the most? What are some of the greatest tensions, generally, between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law? Who do you think was most responsible for the tone of Laura and Barbara’s relationship, in the beginning and, later, over time? Who should take the lead in an in-law relationship?
- Just as her husband is entering political life to run for governor of Texas, Laura Bush’s beloved father is succumbing to the worst of dementia. After he dies, she has a number of regrets about things she wishes they had done, from playing more music to making sure that he was at George’s gubernatorial swearing in—many of which she discusses on pp. 137-38. What side of Laura Bush do we see in this episode? What, to you, are the most important issues that she explores about care giving and the loss of a parent?
STEPPING ON TO THE NATIONAL STAGE: THE WHITE HOUSE YEARS
- Do you think that Laura Bush changes when her husband enters national politics? If so, how does she change? Does her story or the way that she tells it change? What do you think is the cause of those changes?
- On pp. 184-186, Laura Bush discusses some of the behind-the-scenes components of living at the White House—including the costs, having her hair styled each day, the clothing she needed to buy for herself, even the costs of meals. What were some of the things that you found most intriguing about her descriptions of life inside the White House? Why do you think some First Families find the White House lonely? What did you learn about the scrutiny political families face and the lack of privacy? Is it a fair trade-off?
- 9-11 was a transformative moment for the nation and also for the Bush family. What did you think of Laura Bush’s experience that morning in Senator Ted Kennedy’s office, as described on pp. 198-199? How might you have reacted to being escorted out of the Capitol by men with automatic weapons and being rushed to a basement holding room where you could not reach your husband? Knowing her life story up to now, what do you think made Laura Bush become “the comforter-in-chief”?
- Did your views of the war on terror change in any way after you read the book? What do you think now of the decision to send troops to Afghanistan and later to Iraq? How do you think Laura Bush saw her role as the wife of a wartime president?
- Do you agree that we, both in the United States and the West, have an obligation to help the women of Afghanistan? What was the most difficult part of the situation in Afghanistan for you to understand?
- As First Lady, Laura Bush took on many difficult causes, from women in Afghanistan, to a breast cancer initiative in the Arab world (a place where the subject is all but taboo), to malaria and AIDS in Africa, to a major initiative, Helping America’s Youth, focused on at-risk boys and also girls. Why do you think she chose these types of challenging causes? What sort of difference can a first lady make in addressing these types of problems? Did you know that she had such a busy and demanding agenda? If not, why do you think she didn’t get as much attention for her causes and her role?
- Laura Bush does take on the media, writing on p. 353, “Some of it was sloppiness, reporters who didn’t know an issue and got basic facts wrongs. But some of it was bias, where journalists, rather than being objective, could not put their own emotions and assumptions aside.” Do you think that is a fair criticism? Do you think Laura Bush was treated fairly by the media? How serious do you think the problem of media bias is and how much does it affect what we know and how we perceive issues and also our political leaders?
- George W.